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A new exhibition reveals Eleanor Antin as a pioneer in conceptual, perfomance, video and installation art

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on May. 20, 1999 at 8:00 pm

In Eleanor Antin's filmic art installation, "Vilna Nights," ghostly images flicker in the ruined courtyard of a Jewish ghetto. In one window, a woman burns a passel of love letters; in another, a tailor sobs while mending the clothing of murdered children; in a third, hungry children gape as a Chanukah feast materializes, then disappears.

The Holocaust-themed piece fills a gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition, "Eleanor Antin," the first comprehensive survey of the artist's career. The show reveals Antin, 64, one of the first American feminist artists to emerge in the '60s, as a pioneer in conceptual, performance, video and installation art, as well as an acclaimed cult filmmaker.

At first glance, however, "Vilna Nights" (1993) seems out of place in the exhibit. Much of Antin's work, after all, is playful, romantic, wickedly funny. "Blood of a Poet Box" (1965-68), a riff on the suffering artist, contains slide specimens of blood from 100 poets. "Carving: A Traditional Sculpture" (1972) consists of 144 nude, deadpan photographs Antin took of herself while "carving" her body into an "ideal" female form during 36 days of rigorous dieting. The famed "mail art" piece, "100 Boots" is a series of 51 postcards depicting the adventures of Antin's unlikely picaresque "hero": 100 black rubber boots that trudge to church or trespass a property during a cross-country "sojourn."

Then there are all the photographs, drawings, films, installations and "memoirs" in which Antin portrays the fictional personae she invented in the 1970s and '80s. We meet the King (Antin wearing a fake beard), the Little Nurse, Nurse Eleanor Nightingale, the Black Movie Star and Eleanora Antinova, the aging black ballerina who once danced with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Antin herself is a mischevious little sprite, a tiny figure in jeans and a rumpled purple sweater, as she sits with a reporter at a tacky dinette, part of her installation, "Portraits of Eight New York Women."

The "100 boots," which will be on display "in person" for the first time in 26 years, are having a problem, she reveals. They're being exhibited at LACMA in a faux seedy crash pad, which is currently in disarray. "At the moment, the Boots sort of look like pigs," she quips.

But during a serious moment, Antin, who teaches at UC San Diego, reflects that beyond the humor, there is a dark undercurrent to much of her work. All her personae are exiles, aliens, disenfranchised and ultimately doomed, she says. The King leads his followers to a barren wasteland; the Little Nurse completes every adventure with "a nasty little f--"; the elderly, has-been Antinova sits in a shabby boarding house with cockroaches jumping off her lap; and even the Boots end up in a filthy urban hovel.

"Everything I do is...like dancing on the brink of disaster," Antin told Howard N. Fox, LACMA curator of contemporary art, in a conversation published in the exhibition catelogue. "[That's because] I've always felt like an outsider, ...an exile as a Jew. It may not look that way because the American [Jewish] immigration has been so successful, but as Jews we never really know when they might not turn around and...gas us to death."

Antin goes on to compare the comedy in her work to a true story from the Shoah, one that reads like a bad joke. While waiting in line for the gas chambers, a Jewish poet walked up and down the long line, reading palms and predicting futures. "Isn't defeat built into the world," Antin queries, "as basic as carbon?"

A seminal moment in the artist's life was the day, just after World War II, that a European cousin arrived to visit Antin's emigre parents in New York. The relative described the murder of her parents' families and the destruction of their shtetl in the Shoah. "All three of them were crying," Antin remembers. "That is when I knew terrible things had happened to my family."

Shtetl culture wasn't dead in Antin's childhood home, however. Her mother, Genya Efron, a former Yiddish theater actress, owned a series of Catskills hotels where Yiddish high art, not Borsht Belt shtick, ruled. She held court amid the elderly Stalinists and Trotskyites who sat in separate corners of the dining room.

As a young woman, Efron had dreamed of playing great roles in Warsaw but instead traveled with a scruffy Yiddish theater troupe, making the rounds of "two-bit shtetls" in a horse and wagon. Once, while attempting to perform a Yiddish tragedia in a barn, the haughty diva and company were peed on by Jewish peasants who stood in the rafters and guffawed.

Like Antinova, Efron never made the big time, but spiraled down into poverty. After a number of her hotels went bankrupt, the emigre was forced to work menial jobs and to live in shabby furnished rooms.

Nevertheless, the persona of Antinova encompasses all of Efron's love for Russian culture, for Bolshevism and the ballet. When Antin's family lived in a poor apartment in the Bronx, Efron would cash a bad check on Friday, stock up the refrigerator, and spend the rest on weekend tickets to the Ballets Russes or Carnegie Hall, Antin told Fox. Little Eleanor and her mother always sat high up in the balcony, the only place they could afford tickets. "Then we'd take the noisy, smelly train back to the Bronx, and I'm sure my mother felt as alone and alienated from the everyday world as I did," Antin said.

When Efron developed Alzheimers and forgot her shtetl world a decade ago, Antin became obsesssed with re-creating it. She devoured Yiddish literature and perused the Yiddish film archives at Brandeis University and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The result was her first overtly Jewish-themed work, the faux Yiddish silent film, "The Man Without a World" (1991), purportedly by the exiled Soviet-Jewish director Yevgeny Antinov.

The eerie film is the story of Zevi, a Yiddish poet who longs to run away with the Gypsies but is torn by family responsibilities. His sister, Soorelah, insane since being gang-raped by Polish peasants, is possessed by a dybbuk. His mother literally suffers to death and his pregnant girlfriend is tormented by a stalker ex-boyfriend.

The shtetl, which at the beginning of the film is conjured up by the figure of Death, recalls Efron's hometown where Communists argued with anarchists, bohemians and religious zealots. The exorcism of Soorelah's dybbuk is taken from the real exorcism that Efron witnessed as a girl: Through the synagogue window, she saw her father, Reb Shmuel Meiche, cajole and browbeat the demon within a convulsing girl.

In the film, as in Efron's memory, the dybbuk kills its victim. The shtetl is also doomed. At the end of "A Man Without A World," Death tips his hat and follows Zevi and the Gypsies as they traipse down the road to Warsaw. The Holocaust, Antin implies, is near.

The movie, Antin says, comes from her unrequited love with Jewish culture. "It's unrequited, because the Jewish culture I love is gone," she explains. "When I tried to look up my mother's shtetl on the map, the only place I could find it was in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in the room devoted to towns destroyed by the Holocaust. I finally found it, and it was dead! 'The Man Without a World' is my attempt to bring it back again, at making it somehow real."

"Eleonor Antin" runs May 23 through August 23. "The Man Without a World" will screen at LACMA on June 1. For information, call (323) 857-6000.

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